Most of my teachers gave me homework as a student. Most of the teachers in my building assigned homework when I started teaching.
I just assumed I was supposed to give homework.
Teachers have been doing it for all these years, I reasoned. It must be a proven best practice to improve student learning.
So, as a brand new high school Spanish teacher, I started giving my students homework. And at first, it was NOT great homework.
Have you ever noticed that no one really teaches you how to assign great homework assignments? There’s nothing in teacher prep programs or in new teacher orientation.
So I made do. I assigned comprehension questions at the end of the chapter or workbook pages. Sometimes I made up my own worksheets.
The kids despised it. Some just wouldn’t do it. Others would rush to get it finished just as fast as they could. I’d often get the minimum effort necessary to get by. And that, I realized, was not the ideal situation to produce real, lasting learning.
With time, I got better at assigning homework. I created worksheets with fun little Spanish stories I wrote that used the content we were learning. Some had silly pictures that tied into the stories.
The effect it had, though, was the same effect as having a TV on during a root canal: it made an uncomfortable task a little more bearable.
The worksheets, the workbook pages, the comprehension questions — they were all still getting same results that the mindless homework was getting. Some would do it. Some would never do it. Some would turn it in half completed (as much as they could do in the three minutes before class started and I collected it).
And I still wondered, “Are the kids really that much better for having done these homework assignments?”
The unintended divide
After assigning homework for a while, I started to notice something about my gradebook — and it was unsettling.
With all of these homework grades in it, my students started to slowly morph into two distinct groups.
One group was the kids who got it. At the front of this pack was the kids that were going to learn no matter how good a teacher you were. Also in this pack were kids who were compliant and could follow directions well.
The other group was the kids who struggled at Spanish — or just struggled with school all together. Some were uninspired by the learning that happened in school. Others came from a family where education just wasn’t a priority. Many kids from poorer families with less educated parents ended up in this group.
The more homework I assigned, the more I noticed something about these two groups.
The kids that thrived got further and further ahead in the gradebook.
The kids who struggled got further and further behind.
I also noticed a funny thing — a disturbing thing, really, about homework. The kids who really need the homework aren’t the ones who are doing the homework.
Digging into the research
Let’s step away from the narrative of my decision to ditch homework to look at something people seem to want at this point: the research. What does it say? What does it suggest? (After the research, I’ll get to the conclusion of my decision to ditch homework.)
I wish that I could say that decisions I made about homework at the time were research-driven, but they weren’t. However, now that I’ve looked into lots of homework research, I can say that my gut instinct matched up pretty well with how I’ve interpreted all of this research now.
There are LOTS of homework studies out there. After looking through lots of them, here’s the conclusion I’ve come to:
You can find research that tells you whatever you want about homework — positive and negative.
That ranks it 120 out of 195 practices in teaching, right below “mobile phones” and right above “home visiting”.
Cooper listed positive effects of homework done right: better retention of factual knowledge, increased understanding and better critical thinking, among them.
The drawbacks: loss of interest in academic material, physical and emotional fatigue and increased differences between high achievers and low achievers.
The big question for me, though, was this: is homework effective? Cooper summarized it this way:
For high school students, homework has substantial positive effects. Junior high school students also benefit from homework, but only about half as much. For elementary school students, the effect of homework on achievement is negligible.
Thinking about “substantial positive effects”
Having been a high school teacher, the term “substantial positive effects” is pretty resounding.
As an author of a book titled “Ditch That Textbook,” it would be easy to pass over that part and list other research that paint a more negative picture of homework. But Cooper’s work is what people come back to over and over.
I also can say that now, from all of the homework I’ve seen and all of the parents and teachers I’ve talked to, they’re not collectively using the term “substantial positive effects.”
There seems to be a disconnect somewhere.
So I looked at some of the conclusions Cooper made based on the research he studied.
Conclusion 1: He compared achievement of students with their completion of homework. I couldn’t find his definition of achievement in this article, but often it means test scores. Test scores homework completion numbers are neat, tidy numbers that researchers can use do statistical comparisons. Cooper found that 14 studies pointed toward homework while 6 pointed toward no homework.
I kept coming back to two thoughts.
One: what causes achievement numbers to rise? It appears that these studies didn’t account for solid teaching, classroom discussion and timely feedback, which are all top practices in Hattie’s list.
Two: Can we reduce the effectiveness of teaching to achievement scores? I’ve always believed my own children — and the students I’ve taught — are more than the sum of their test scores. As we go forward in a world that will reward teamwork, problem solving, and creativity more and more, my confidence in the absolute authority of test scores is trending down.
Conclusion 2: Cooper compared the effectiveness of homework to supervised in-class study. Instead of having students complete work at home, in this scenario, they would have access to their highly qualified teacher. He reported that homework was seen more favorably in this scenario. When compared to in-class supervised study, the effect size of homework was cut in half.
Conclusion 3: Cooper compared time reported doing homework to achievement scores. Cooper reported that students’ time spent doing homework correlated with their achievement scores: the more time they reported doing homework, the higher their achievement scores would be. The effect size — how much homework impacted achievement scores — in this case was:
- Grades K-4: nearly zero
- Grades 5-9: +0.07 (pretty close to zero)
- Grades 10-12: 0.25
Then, at the end of that section, Cooper addressed the problem with correlational numbers:
Many of these correlations came from statewide surveys or national assessments. Of course, correlation does not mean causation. It is just as likely that high achievement causes students to do more homework as vice versa. So we must be careful not to overinterpret these results.
He calls all of these conclusions a resounding win for homework, but after seeing these results of his study, I was left with more questions than answers.
- Does homework really prepare students for the ever-changing world they’re going to enter?
- Can we really use achievement data to show whether homework is effective or ineffective?
- Does the data this research uses measure the real qualities that will help students succeed?
- What kind of homework was being assigned in all of these studies? As Lyn Corno wrote in Educational Researcher, “Homework is a complicated thing.”
- How would these numbers change when looking at poorer families or families with less-educated parents?
I don’t want to discredit all research proclaiming benefits of homework, and I don’t totally discredit all of Cooper’s research.
However, from my own homework experiences as a student and as a teacher — and after digging deep into the research — I’m not ready to bestow the “substantial positive effects” title that Cooper used.
The decision to ditch homework
Back in my own classroom, I still wasn’t getting the benefits that I wanted from homework. It was still creating a divide in grades between the high achievers and students that struggled.
When I quit homework, it wasn’t cold turkey. I didn’t make an announcement to all of my classes one day that we were done with homework.
A better way of explaining it was a slow fade. As I became more and more disenchanted with homework, I assigned it less and less. Eventually, I realized I hadn’t assigned homework for weeks.
What was different? Instead of arguing with kids about homework — and shaming them for doing assignments they and their families didn’t value — my conversations about kids were increasingly about our content. We were talking about Spanish — and IN SPANISH! — more than ever.
Was there a revolt from administration or parents? No, and here’s why I think there wasn’t.
It’s hard to argue with results. I was trading my ineffective homework practices for more effective practices in the classroom.
Parents would meet with me and say, “I took Spanish for three years in high school and can’t speak a word of it!” When their children came home speaking in complete sentences and talking about classes with no spoken English, they were on board.
What I hope comes out of this isn’t that teachers ditch their homework mindlessly — just because a book or a blog post told them to do it.
What I hope we’ll do is examine our practices to see if they’re based on tradition or based on effectiveness. For me, when I took that critical look at what I was doing, there was one resounding conclusion …
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